Celebrating the 4th of July Weekend at Merrill’s Mile 24 Hour Race – July 2, 2016 (Dahlonega, GA)

Originally I had signed up for the 12-hour version of this race. However, I was concerned – and rightly so – that I might not be able to complete a 50k in 12 hours, not after two recent foot surgeries. My training race last weekend pointed that out clearly to me. When I emailed the race director about this problem, she was happy to transfer me up to the 24-hour race for just a small increase in the price. It was well worth it to me and made the difference between achieving my goal or being frustrated.

Darcy and I left for Georgia around 8 on Friday morning. Traffic was light until we reached the outskirts of Atlanta. Even the bypass routes, especially 285, were filled with lots of trucks and vacationers, but fortunately there were no tie ups or accidents. We kept moving, just slowly (kind of like me in ultras). It took us about 7 hours to reach our hotel, the Holiday Inn, on the outskirts of Dahlonega proper. We’ve stayed here before on two previous Merrill’s Mile races and the hotel is clean and convenient, with friendly accommodating staff.

We were hungry so we headed to the attractive downtown area which has street and free public parking lots and several appealing restaurants. As usual, Darcy had done his homework and chose several places for us to consider. We had an excellent lunch at Spirits Tavern, where I had a 4-cheese grilled sandwich, sweet Southern cole slaw, and a local brew, while Darcy had a burger with a fried egg on top and hard cider. The only real downside to this restaurant was the loud canned music; it was hard to have a conversation but the food was very good.

After we ate we walked to the North GA Running Company a couple of streets away and I picked up my bib and tee shirt (gray short-sleeve tech – I love the design on the back but can’t stand the slippery feel) plus some arm bands made of the same material. I will give the arm bands to a runner friend who also does ultras and doesn’t mind the tech fabric. The races are chip timed but we had to get the ankle chips on race morning.

Then we returned to the hotel to see if I could get some sleep. Amazingly enough, I fell asleep quickly and slept all the way until 4 in the morning. Since the races began at 9 on Saturday morning, there was no reason to get up too early. I had my coffee and then lounged around until Darcy woke. We wandered down to the lobby so he could get something to eat and then left at 7:30 for the race site at Camp Frank D. Merrill (an Army Ranger training camp). It took about 30 minutes driving time. We arrived around 8 and I set up my chair and drop bag inside the oval loop of the paved course in between several runner tents. Later I moved my stuff to a ‘free’ tent for runners who didn’t have their own so I could keep my things out of the sunshine.

Merrill’s Mile has a race for everyone. One can choose between 6, 12, 24, or 48-hour time limits, beginning on Saturday or Sunday in the morning or evening. Because the 0.9902 mile paved oval is not shaded at all, many wise participants opted to start the 6 or 12-hour race in the evening hours to avoid the very hot sun. Of course, that was not me. I wanted to begin at 9 in the morning so I could enjoy all that sunshine and humidity (and not all of that is meant to be sarcasm – I do prefer heat to cold and humidity to rain or snow, but it was hot even for me).

There is one aid station that has the usual ultra food choices plus watermelon and popsicles. I mostly relied on my own food, especially since I ate a filling dinner in the middle of the race, but I did enjoy the tortilla filled with sweet potatoes and black beans – yum! At the opposite end of the course is a table with just water, handy for filling up a water bottle without any crowding.

The fact that the ‘mile’ is not really a mile means that it takes several laps to achieve any reasonable distance so I figured I would have to do 34 laps to get in my 50k distance. That would give me 31 miles plus some extra for insurance. I had a plan. I wanted to stay on the course all morning and for part of the afternoon. Darcy would check on me around 4 pm and if I felt I needed a break (and I was sure that I would), he would drive me back to the hotel and I would rest for several hours or perhaps overnight and then return me to the course to finish up. There was no phone service at the Camp except for Verizon and since we had ATT, there was no way I give him a call at any hour to say ‘come pick me up now, please.’

I was doing fine until my 15th lap when my feet started to hurt and burn. I did another 8 laps, more slowly each go-around and thought seriously about changing shoes (I had 4 pairs of various sizes and widths) but it was so close to 4 o’clock at that point I decided to stick it out with what I was wearing (my very comfortable New Balance Boracay men’s size 10 D) until Darcy appeared. He showed up promptly at 4 and I was ready to head out with him. I left word with the RD and time keeper that I was taking an extended break and we drove to Dahlonega and the Bourbon Street Grille. I wasn’t very hungry but I knew Darcy was famished so he ate and I nibbled (the steak and guacamole salad was great but I saved most of it for breakfast after the race). Then we went back to the hotel where I showered, changed clothes, and elevated my legs on some pillows while icing my feet.

It made a difference. Four hours later my feet were still sore but not as wrecked as they were earlier. Although I seldom take any medicine while racing, I did take one Aleve just for extra insurance. I put on the same pair of NB (yes, they were that comfortable), packed my other 3 shoes just in case, and at 8:30 pm we headed back to the course.

I had completed 23 laps before we left at 4, so I had 11 more to reach that magic 50k number. I decided to just stay the night and arranged for Darcy to come get me at 4 am. I figured that the 7 hours from 9 pm to 4 am should give me plenty of time to do at least 11 laps, maybe more, and also allow me time to rest if need be. Night is not my favorite time to race but this experience would come in handy for the upcoming 24 hour races on my schedule.

Without the hot sun, it was surprisingly pleasant on the course. The humidity was still present but there was also a cool refreshing breeze. Fireflies and other bugs were plentiful and we could hear frogs in the nearby creeks. The RD warned us about the possibility of poisonous snakes crossing the road in the darkness but I never saw any (and, believe me, I was watching for them!). I managed to do those 11 laps before midnight and then just kept on going. I did change shoes once or twice, mostly for a chance to sit down and rest a bit. Final tally: 43 laps=42.795 miles in 14 hours on the course (broken up into two 7 hour segments). I usually do 40 to 45 miles in a 12-hour race but I was very grateful to have the full 24 hours to get this number.

At 4 am Darcy was waiting for me to finish my final lap. I turned in my chip, received my dog tag medal, and we took off for the hotel where I promptly fell into a sound slumber. A couple of hours later we were on the road headed for home. It turned out to be a great 4th of July weekend!